CLEMSON — Cullen Harper realized the weight had somewhat lifted off Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence’s shoulders when Spence referred to his own weight.
Before last weekend’s practices, Spence told Harper he was going to coach his senior starting quarterback hard.
Harper said he knew Spence meant business when he dusted off a line he frequently used when he first took the job: “I might be 135 pounds, but I can rip your face off.”
Spence playfully denied using those exact words.
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“No hands-on approach here,” Spence said.
Figuratively, Clemson players beg to differ.
Several prominent offensive starters said Monday that such comments exemplified a noticeable change in demeanor from their beleaguered play-caller.
What Spence termed “gentle reminders” were otherwise construed as his attempt to hold players accountable for mistakes like the ones that cost them the Maryland game.
Junior center Thomas Austin said he had never witnessed Spence be as vocal, especially in critiquing Harper. Senior running back James Davis suggested he has been hearing Spence’s voice in his sleep.
“We have a veteran team, so he gave some guys some leeway,” junior running back C.J. Spiller said. “But he said now he’s going to get back to coaching the way he coaches.”
While Spence downplayed the alleged increased assertion, Harper said he believes the change derived from the toll of Clemson’s collapse against Maryland more than a week ago.
After dominating offensively in the first half, the Tigers screeched to a halt in the second. The running game ran dry. Their attempts to pass downfield were few and feeble. And penalties stalled several drives.
Junior tight end Michael Palmer said he had never seen Spence as downtrodden as he was afterward. Spence admitted as much Monday, saying that in his 27 years of coaching, he has not felt as challenged.
With coach Tommy Bowden shooting down questions regarding Clemson’s offensive direction, Spence’s wife, Karen, reminded him he had overcome such travails before.
But Spence said his turning point occurred at church the next morning.
His assistant pastor spoke in his sermon about a time he wanted to quit his profession before realizing how meaningful his contributions were.
Coincidentally, Spence said he was then reminded of his time coaching at Maryland, where a fellow assistant, current Fresno State associate coach John Baxter, had a maxim:
“You’re either coaching them or you’re allowing it to happen,” Spence said. “If you’re seeing it on the field, you’re allowing it to happen.”
In a subsequent team meeting, Spence shouldered the blame for Clemson’s loss.
By displaying a decreased tolerance for mistakes, he apparently hopes to eliminate what the Tigers’ offense has been showing on the field.
It is either an about-face — or risk having your face ripped off.
“I’ve never said that,” Spence said. “Sometimes I feel that way ... .”